Discover more from The Starfire Codes by Demi Pietchell
Learning To Say "I Don't Know... But I'll Find Out"
Proactively seeking answers through courageous curiosity fosters wisdom, authenticity, and ongoing learning essential for individual and collective growth
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As children grow into adolescents and young adults, their relationship with learning evolves. The natural curiosity and eagerness to explore that characterizes early childhood shifts into a more complex engagement with education. Pressures to perform and compete emerge, and many kids start to associate learning with external motivators like grades and test scores. Saying “I don’t know” can feel like an admission of failure or ignorance. Yet the ability to acknowledge the limits of one's knowledge with humility is a hallmark of wisdom. By making “I don’t know” responses safe to express and emphasizing the importance of finding answers, we can help foster more productive attitudes toward learning in the next generation.
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The Problems with Pretending to Know
Most people can relate to the experience of being put on the spot with a question and not knowing the answer. Rather than simply saying “I don’t know,” many will attempt to mask their ignorance by guessing, fumbling for a plausible response, or even making something up entirely. While this reaction is understandable, pretending to know something you don't can be detrimental in several ways.
First, it can undermine trust and authenticity in relationships. If someone discovers you bluffed your way through a conversation, claiming expertise you don't actually have, it calls your credibility into question. Even with innocent intentions, being caught giving inaccurate information feels embarrassing and damages open communication.
Second, claiming false knowledge can actually impede learning. If you convince yourself and others that you possess an understanding you haven't truly acquired, you lose motivation to dig deeper. Glossing over the gaps in comprehension with a facade of intellect stunts the curiosity required for growth.
Finally, posturing as an authority when you are not misinforms and misleads. Reliable exchange of ideas depends on clarity around what is known versus unknown. When people mask ignorance with false claims, they pollute discussions and promote misconceptions.
Ultimately, pretending to know is a flimsy substitution for the real deal. It leads to misplaced confidence, stunted development, and weakened connections. Few things of value emerge from masquerading rather than admitting you have more to learn.
The Courage to Be Honest
Given the pitfalls of faking knowledge, there is power in finding the courage to simply say “I don’t know.” This requires some vulnerability, as the phrase risks exposing our limitations. Yet honest acknowledgment of what we have yet to learn is wise and brave. Rather than demonstrating ignorance, it shows self-awareness around the gaps in one’s understanding.
The admission “I don’t know” is a beautiful seed from which insight blossoms. Consider what happens when someone says those three words, and contrast it with the alternative of pretending to know. Questions arise, curiosity awakens, and the journey to find answers activates. Saying “I don’t know” summons knowledge from those in the know rather than reinforcing false information. When spoken with humility, this phrase opens doorways to wisdom rather than closing them off.
There are several habits we can cultivate to become more comfortable saying “I don’t know”:
Let go of the link between knowledge and self-worth. Our value lies deeper than what we know.
Focus on the process of learning rather than the outcome of knowing. Knowledge is ever-evolving.
Remind yourself that admitting ignorance allows growth. No one has all the answers.
Reframe “I don’t know” as an invitation rather than a weakness. Unknowns are opportunities.
Reward curiosity more than certainty. Questions drive discovery.
With practice, saying “I don’t know” shifts from an admission of shame to a proclamation of readiness to learn. The knowledge we gain by embracing not knowing far outweighs the empty facade of pretending to know.
Adding: “But I’ll Find Out”
While there is power in acknowledging the limits of one's understanding, remaining in ignorance is not the goal. Rather than stopping at “I don’t know,” there is another step to take: committing to find the answer. Adding the phrase “but I’ll find out” demonstrates engagement in the learning process.
Here are some of the benefits of following “I don’t know” with “but I’ll find out”:
It shows intellectual humility as well as curiosity and drive. You accept not knowing for now but pledge to change that.
It takes ownership and responsibility for your learning rather than expecting others to fill your gaps. It turns the unknown into a puzzle to actively solve rather than obscurity to passively accept. There is empowerment in seeking solutions.
It provides time to research and gather thorough, accurate information rather than hazarding guesses.
It models self-directed learning, showing others the value of proactively pursuing knowledge.
It creates opportunities for meaningful collaboration. In many cases, “finding out” involves leveraging the expertise of others through asking questions and getting mentored.
It motivates continuous growth by always pushing the boundaries of one's understanding. To commit to perpetual curiosity is to commit to lifelong learning.
When “I don’t know” is a stopping point, it becomes an end rather than a beginning. Adding “but I’ll find out” transforms the admission of ignorance into a starting line for the race to new discoveries. It also makes the exchange more satisfying for the asker. Rather than leaving the question unresolved, the responder commits to an exploration the asker can participate in as well.
As Ralph Charell famously wrote, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” “I don’t know” helps dispel that illusion, breaking the cycle of presumption. “But I’ll find out” represents the next step: pursuit of truth. The gap between the two is where real growth occurs.
Self-directed learning, also known as autodidacticism, happens when individuals take ownership of their education beyond the traditional classroom. It relies on the learner developing curiosity, initiative, and accountability. Saying “I don’t know...but I will find out” embodies that spirit of autodidacticism.
Nurturing lifelong learners who can manage their own growth starts with promoting self-direction and autonomy. Here are some key ways that educators and parents can help cultivate autodidacticism:
Allow children space for open exploration and discovery, letting their organic interests guide learning.
Expose them to a diverse range of information and perspectives beyond the standard curriculum.
Teach research and critical thinking skills they can apply broadly.
Empower them to ask questions and challenge assumptions. Make saying "I don't know" normal.
Encourage self-reflection on gaps in understanding and plans to address them.
Provide access to varied learning resources they can pursue independently.
Be willing guides when needed but don't spoon feed answers. Let them develop grit in finding their own ways.
Celebrate the thrill of new knowledge and accomplishments reached through their own efforts.
The ultimate goal is shifting mindsets around education. Learning becomes an adventure rather than an obligation, and "not knowing yet" is exciting rather than embarrassing. Curiosity and determination drive continuous growth. By making "I don't know" a starting line rather than a dead end, we help learners of all ages embrace autodidacticism.
Decoupling Ego from the Need to Be Right
One obstacle many encounter to saying "I don't know" is fear of being wrong. Our egos become intertwined with knowledge such that ignorance feels like failure. This manifests in children as academic anxiety, pressuring them to know the "right" answers regardless of reality. It persists into adulthood as intellectual insecurity and reluctance to acknowledge what we haven't mastered.
To cultivate wisdom and self-motivated learning, we need to decouple ego from the need to be right. Some strategies to help learners depersonalize "not knowing" include:
Framing education as exploration rather than an intellectual performance or competition.
Letting go of rigid binaries like right/wrong when it comes to intellectual exploration. Knowledge lives in shades of gray.
Allowing yourself and others the freedom to evolve perspectives over time as understanding deepens.
Disconnecting self-worth and status from mastery. Our value extends beyond what we know.
Developing growth mindsets that reinforce skills and knowledge as being attainable with effort over time rather than being fixed innate traits.
Building intellectual humility and reminding yourself everyone has gaps; "I don't know" is universal.
When we remove ego attachment from the learning process, we stop twisting ignorance into embarrassment and failure. Instead, not knowing becomes neutral, simply pointing to more opportunities to expand understanding. This push toward autodidacticism empowers the learner to keep going.
Celebrating Small Steps of Progress
Finally, an essential part of making the ownership of not knowing all of the answers and a state of ongoing learning rewarding is celebrating progress in all its forms. By honoring small daily improvements in knowledge and skills, we build the motivation and momentum to continue growing.
Imagine the progress society could make if students got as excited about grasping a new math concept as about acing a test, or if professionals were as proud of deepening their expertise as of earning a promotion. We need to recognize that real achievement comes not from accolades or the validation of what we already know, but from consistently taking small steps that expand understanding over time.
Some ways to celebrate the ongoing process of learning include:
Recognizing all new knowledge gained with the same enthusiasm typically reserved for major accomplishments. Make micro-progress visible.
Similarly, acknowledge when someone says "I don't know" as an important act of intellectual courage, not a disappointment.
Encourage regular reflection on recent lessons learned and knowledge gained. Maintain growth mindsets.
Empower learners to share what they've discovered without judgment, even if basic to others.
Deem trying and failing while learning as more honorable than pretending to know. Failure becomes fertilizer for future success.
Make the emotional experience of overcoming challenges through grit intrinsically rewarding.
Recognize effort and strategy, not just innate talent. Praise the process.
Reward mentorship that helps others gain knowledge. Progress happens together.
By shifting cultures to celebrate tiny daily acts of learning over grand demonstrations of what's already known, we enable people to stay motivated. Forward motion feels fulfilling.
Knowledge itself is the real prize, not the image of seeming smart. An environment where "I don't know" is met with support and encouragement unlocks freedom to continually learn.
The Path Forward
Learning can too easily become a source of frustration, anxiety, and stagnation when it gets entangled with ego. The fear of saying "I don't know" runs deep. Yet the alternative of pretending to know is an even poorer choice, leading to misinformation, miseducation, and closed-mindedness.
By embracing "I don't know" as a starting point and adding "but I'll find out," we take ownership of our learning. Curiosity takes over, launching explorations that lead to growth. This cycle repeats endlessly when we unlink knowledge from self-worth and commit to lifelong improvement however small. A wise society recognizes the strength of admitting ignorance and provides support to productively fill those gaps.
The mindset shift required is both simple and monumentally challenging. It requires true humility, courage, and perseverance. Yet the rewards could be transformative, propelling generations of autodidacts on an upward trajectory, continually expanding understanding and positively impacting the world. A populace committed to lifelong learning out of intrinsic motivation rather than obligation or ego is exactly what humanity needs to reach our potential.
How do we begin? I don't know… but I’ll find out.
Special thanks to Soraya.
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